Hedging Your Bets #18: Champions
With almost 300 issues in the core series, Archie's Sonic The Hedgehog stands as the longest-running uninterrupted American monthly comic book that's currently being published. In Hedging Your Bets, I attempt to get up to speed on Sonic the Hedgehog, challenging the odds to hopefully make it all the way to the finish line.
This week, it's Sonic meets WrestleMania, and how do you screw that up?!
Sonic the Hedgehog #268-271: "Champions"
There are certain kinds of stories that almost always work --- or that I always like to read, anyway. There's the jailbreak, where the hero is stripped of their weapons and has to escape from a hostile location, preferably full of deathtraps, with only their wits and raw strength. There's the High School story, where you get to see how the dynamics of heroes and villains play out against a bottled-up social setting, also preferably full of deathtraps, that almost everyone has a formative connection to in their real lives.
And then there's the fighting tournament.
I love this kind of story, because all the drama is just so easy to create. All you need is a McGuffin that everyone wants that can function as the ultimate prize, a few plot twists that can play out in the background and recontextualize the action going on in the ring, and all that's left is to figure out who you want in the finals and work backwards to build out the brackets from there. It's almost foolproof in how well it can come together if you're dealing with a genre built around action, It's why you see it so often in superhero stories and tabletop RPGs, because it turns the thing you're going to be doing anyway --- the fighting --- into the actual plot.
So needless to say, when I found out that the next arc of Sonic the Hedgehog was not only going to be about a fighting tournament, but about a fighting tournament set up like a pro wrestling event, I was stoked.
I mean, I tempered my expectations --- I was pretty sure this wasn't going to be as good as the best tournament story, the one from Badger where he chooses a pair of pipe wrenches as his signature weapons, stabs a guy in the stomach with them, and then calls it a "gut-wrenching experience" --- but still, hopes were high.
I mean, we've got the McGuffin in the form of the Chaos Emerald, we've got a roster of characters that's staggering even after the alleged streamlining of the reboot, and we've got the background twists in the form of Breezie, who is basically Vince McMahon as a lady hedgehog. We even have the ticking clock in the form of the ongoing Shattered World crisis adding more urgency to everything.
I don't know that I've ever been this disappointed in a Sonic story.
Part of that, I'm sure, is that this is the first time I've been invested enough in what's going on to actually be disappointed rather than just being mildly confused by the weirdness of the plot or fixated on the mechanics of the storytelling. This was one that I genuinely wanted to work, but it doesn't.
And the rest of it comes down from structure. I think the first problem is that we never actually see the brackets, something that is, if not strictly necessary in a tournament story, at least appreciated for how efficiently it provides the context and structure of what's going on and lets you set (and defy) expectations. We just get them doled out as the story goes on, which doesn't do a great job of letting us know who's in and who's out.
Also, the first round of the tournament is just Characters We Know vs. Random-Ass Nameless Scrubs, which means that we might as well just skip it entirely. If this is a wrestling event, then it's that WWF title tournament from Survivor Series 1998 that built to the Rock against Mick Foley. It might end with the guys you want to see fighting --- and a screwy finish that advances the ongoing plot --- but nobody expects the Big Bossman or Jeff Jarrett to really make an impact.
Even the characters themselves don't know the brackets, and while that actually is a plot point --- Breezie's been messing with the tournament to heighten viewer interest and make more money --- it doesn't actually ramp up the tension. It just muddies the waters. We don't even get descriptions of the rings, which are weird Pokémon Stadium environments that just sorta show up and don't really impact the fights. There's just a ton of wasted potential all over this storyline.
To be fair, there are a couple of interesting twists in the tournament. There's a new character, Honey the Cat --- an import from the Sonic the Fighters video game on which this story is loosely based --- who's actually pretty fun. She's a fashion designer who entered the tournament as self-promotion, and wound up completely humiliating Tails in the ring during the first round, which makes him sullen and grumpy for the rest of the story.
More like Miles O'Frowns, am I right?
Amy Rose ends up being taken out by Knuckles --- who's on the trail of the shattered Master Emerald pieces --- and Sonic beats Honey after she decides that it's better to shoot a work than to work herself into a shoot, brother.
Oh, and there's also a plot where Sonic arranges for all of his fights to take place in the daytime, because he's still dealing with the thing where he turns into a hedgehulk at night, and needs to hide this shame from the eyes of God, I guess:
Because if there's one thing that wrestling fans hate, it's watching an underdog good guy undergo a sudden transformation --- "hulking up," if you will --- into an unstoppable physical powerhouse. C'mon.
As you might expect, this all ends up with Sonic taking on Knuckles in the finals, with callbacks to their long history. The problem is that rather than making this feel like a pure physical showdown between the two most popular characters in the franchise, it more just feels like, "hey, here's the fight you've seen before, just without any stakes."
It's the John Cena vs. Randy Orton of Sonic the Hedgehog, which may be the most damning criticism I have ever written.
There are, however, plenty of shenanigans going on behind the scenes. First, Nack from the Hooligans is perched on top of the arena with a sniper rifle ready to shoot Sonic and/or Knuckles in the head because everyone in this comic about talking hedgehogs and magic emeralds also has guns I guess?!
And second, Metal Sonic shows up at the last minute to steal the Emerald, and despite a pretty cool sequence where he manages to dodge out of the way of the entirety of good guys in a single-file line --- he's stopped by the Freedom Fighters and Breezie's security forces and forced to retreat without the Emerald.
It turns out to be the best part of the story, because it reveals Breezie to be the kind of True Neutral amoral that they've been setting her up to be this entire time:
She comes out of this story as a really cool villain, a potential player in future stories that can make things very interesting because she's neither good, nor evil, nor stupid enough to let her short-term interest in profits prevent the good guys from actually saving the world. But she's kind of the only good thing that comes out of it.
The tournament itself, despite some solid moments, is flawed from jump street, and rather than playing into the ongoing tension of a ticking clock, the fact that all of this is occurring over months of the Shattered World Crisis just makes it seem like it's not really that much of a crisis at all. We know they need to save the world from it because they keep telling us that, but nobody seems immediately concerned with it, and we never actually see any danger from it in this story. In fact, since the "crisis" is the only thing keeping Angel Island afloat in the absence of the Master Emerald, the only thing we see in this arc is that it's not all bad.
Especially since the story ends with someone else showing up and telling us that there's a different way to fix everything.
And this is the part that I really don't understand. We already know how to fix everything. It's been set up for months now that they just need to gather them up like they always do and leave it to the tiny comic relief Gaia Spirit that showed up with Knuckles a few arcs ago. Adding anything else to that just makes things needlessly complicated, and even teasing a twist on what they're already doing is just making it seem like the story is aimless and confused.
Which is the problem: Tournament stories by their nature are focused. They're regimented, structured with brackets and matches, Even with the stuff going on in the background, even with the twists that shape the tournament, they lend themselves to tight, simple storytelling. This story doesn't do that. It just keeps getting more complicated, spiraling out of control in a way that detracts from the any of the good stuff that's happening.
Also I hate that stupid duck from the Hooligans, which means that I have to spend this arc identifying with friggin' Orbot, of all characters.
That's worse than the time I decided I kinda like Shadow the Hedgehog.
This Week's Odds:
- Chris finishes the entire project: 100 to 1
- Chris fantasy books a Sonic the Hedgehog pro wrestling tournament on his own in his spare time: 3 to 1
- Chris makes detailed notes comparing each Sonic character to their "Attitude Era" WWF counterpart: 2 to 1
- Chris goes back and reads that Badger arc again: 1 to 1